Illusionism: if player choices seem to matter, does it matter if they don’t?

Eventually, every game master winds up guilty of illusionism: You offer the players a choice that seems to matter, and then rearrange the game world so all the options lead to the same outcome.

An illusionist GM prepares an encounter that pits the characters against an ogre on the road. Then, whether the players take the low road or the high road, they face that same ogre. If they opt to stay home for tea and cakes, the ogre fancies a bite.

426px-Sandys,_Frederick_-_Morgan_le_FayIn the early days of role-playing games, when players tried to beat dungeons and game masters acted as something between referee and adversary, such illusionist deceptions resembled cheating. Chivalry & Sorcery (1978) advised the GM to set out a dungeon’s details in advance so he could “prove them on paper should an incredulous group of players challenge his honesty or fairness.

As the game changed into a way to engage players in a story, illusionism became a tempting strategy for GMs. Deception appealed to GMs who wished to steer players through a particular story, but also to GMs who needed to prepare a game without preparing for every possibility.

GMs running campaigns aim for three targets: player freedom, world detail, and ease of preparation. Those of us who must keep a day job can only choose two. Illusionism seems like a way to cheat by dropping player freedom while making the players think they remain free. If the players believe their choices count, what does it matter if they don’t?

The ogre encounter seems innocent. Dungeons & Dragons players expect to stumble on monsters, and that ogre could appear on either route as a wandering monster. But what if the players must guess whether the Dread Baron travels the low road or the high road? Do you base the villain’s travel plans on whether your story calls for a showdown today?

Many GMs feel that offering an illusion of choice robs players’ of real control over their characters’ fates, so illusionism is unfair on principle. While writing about illusionism, John Arendt concludes, “The DM is obligated to administer the setting in a way that ensures player choice is meaningful, in accordance with the previously established facts.” Courtney Campbell adds, “I think illusionism is abhorrent in both D&D-style games, and story-based, plot-arc games.

I admire the principle, but players don’t join your game because they admire your unwavering game theory.

In every RPG session, players sacrifice some of their characters’ freedom for fun. When they join the game, they silently agree to band their PCs together, to cooperate, and to have their PCs award the magic item to whoever rolls highest on the great d20 in the sky.

The price of illusionism comes from another angle. Much of the fun of games come from making interesting choices and then experiencing the consequences. For more, see “How to improve your game by forcing characters into tough choices.”

In a role-playing game, good choices come with enough information to make illusion difficult. The sort of choices that let you easily fake illusionary consequences tend to be dull choices based on scant facts. When you serve players such vague options, they hardly enrich the game. High road or low road? Flip a coin.

If the players must decide whether to travel the low road or the high road, then either choice could lead to the same wandering ogre. But suppose on the low road, the hag Auntie Boil always demands some small, wicked deed of those who travel her swamp. On the high road, frost giants guard an icy pass, but one may owe the thief a favor. Ogres could wander either route, but now the choice becomes interesting because each road takes the adventure on a different spin.

The best choices lead to consequences too specific to fake with illusion. If the players spurn a town that pleaded for help against raiders, the town burns. If the players betray Lady Redblade, she treats them as enemies.

You could contrive circumstances that spares players from the expected consequences: A storm delays the raiders until the players arrive. Lady Redblade blames a rival for stealing the artifact that the players took for themselves. But whenever a convenient break spares your story from the players’ actions, your game world loses credibility. If players seldom see their actions lead to repercussions, they learn that their actions hardly matter.

Illusionism isn’t a cheat; it’s a compromise. Illusion may save a great encounter or contribute to an impression of freedom, but it bears a price. Whenever you serve an illusion of choice, you miss a chance to offer the sort of real choice—the sort of dilemma—that enhances the game.

Should you use to illusionism at your table? The game is yours. Every game master knows the benefit of deception. Now you understand the cost of a lost opportunity. Interesting choices carry a price.

12 thoughts on “Illusionism: if player choices seem to matter, does it matter if they don’t?

  1. Geoffrey Greer

    Hey, David. I really appreciate this post. I put much thought (stress?) into the question of illusionism, especially since I am indeed a man who has to keep a day job! I also hate writing branches of a module that never end up getting used. I think about the role of illusionism within the greater context of “what’s the point”? In other words, what’s the point of playing an RPG? I mean, if PCs get killed, so what? The players will just generate new characters and keep on playing. The plot may need to be “patched” a little for continuity’s sake, but sooner or later, the PCs WILL inevitably reach the end of the adventure.

    So isn’t it best to simply focus on the story-building and enrichment, shaping and re-working the plot as you go? I think player choice should be REAL—in that it shapes the ORDER in which things happen, and it inspires the GM to construct and ADD IN plot developments (s)he hadn’t already thought of, but it seems pointless to map out a true and pure series of if-then statements and a game that the players could actually lose. Thoughts?

    1. David Hartlage Post author

      Hi Geoff,
      Thanks for the support!

      As soon as D&D players started favoring adventures centered around a villain to defeat or an evil plan to thwart, they surrendered some freedom. Whatever the players do during the adventure will come to a choke point where all the choices they could have made lead to the same showdown. I think most game masters feel comfortable using a few tricks to bring the game to such a conclusion. The key is to offer enough choices along the way to make players feel free, and enough consequences to make the choices feel like they matter.


      1. Arjan

        Not necessarily true. Choosing to stop the Evil Baron will inevitably lead to some kind of showdown. This is the consequence of that choice. I think that most players would be disappointed is there was no showdown with said Baron.

        The route to the showdown is full of meaningful choices as well as long as those choices have impact on the final showdown. By way of gaining information of a weakness, gaining useful resources (items, allies, levels), gaining favorable circumstances etc. so, no, it isn’t the same showdown.

        What I’m saying is, is that player agency comes from meaningful consequences to choices, not from lack of constraint or broadness of scope of said choices.

        Not sure how freedom comes into play. The players could choose not to tumble with the Evil Baron. But that would also be a big fu to the DM who prepared the game. There is a unspoken contract between players to keep on the reservation. So no choice, either in or out of character is totally free. As it is IRL I think. There are always constraints.

  2. Axel Castilla

    I liked this nuanced entry.
    Incidentally, not just role-playing games, but life itself, even the notion of “free will” is pretty submerged into “illusionism”. So it’s not “realism” what is at stake here.
    Nevertheless it doesn’t refrain subjects of experimenting decision-making as “real”.
    And of course, when it’s about role-playing games, there are better and worse magicians of illusion.

  3. Mark

    Great post David! Thanks! As the DM for a group of 11/12 year olds I believe choice is the crux of the game. Your post really crystallized that for me by highlighting the kinds of choices to offer: those with consequences (making enemies or sealing an alliance) verses those where illusionism can be applied to get to a great battle I’ve set up. Choices with consequences are tools for real life lessons – I’ve watched with delight the struggles and debates these boys have had with moral decisions in the game and clash between player character personalities as they try to adhere to an ethic. Good stuff! Thank you again for your thoughtful writing!

    1. David Hartlage Post author

      Hi Mark,
      I loved reading about your live-game experience with player choices. Kids that age have such personal, unfiltered reactions to the game that DMing for them can prove exhilarating. Thanks!


  4. Ilbranteloth

    Yeah, I don’t see Illusionism as it’s been termed as a bad thing. Nor as dramatic as your final conclusion.

    The DM has many tools and techniques at their disposal. The overuse of a given one can be detrimental. Most of the encounters won’t have a dilemma. In part due to reasons you give in your following post, such as they are hard to make, but also because it wouldn’t serve the game well.

    A D&D game, like all good drama, will have peaks and valleys. Much of what happens is routine exploration, an occasional brush with death, and so on. When a true dilemma comes up, it’s a defining feature of that drama, if well done much of what has occurred before leads up to that dramatic climax.

    Although it probably started earlier, 4e really changed that approach significantly. The dramatic arc was gone, it was all about the action, jump from one “exciting scene” to the next. Why bother with the mundane things between encounters, like traversing for days in dank, dark, caverns, worrying about food and water, not knowing when you’d see daylight again? That’s hard to do, because there isn’t something mechanical you can sink your dice in. It’s all about the DM and awakening the imagination of the players.

    If I spend some time putting together what used to be “Side Treks” in Dungeon magazine, they are interesting encounters. Something more than a quick roll on the random encounter table and see what I can describe off the top of my head. Your very own post about descriptions in dungeons highlights the benefits of this:

    These are simple encounters that could occur in many different locations. Maybe the ogres were targeting the low road, but traffic has slowed (perhaps because of the reports of marauding ogres) so they moved to the high road today to try their luck there.

    The point is, for minor encounters, even those that provide other potential hooks, are less important in the idealism against Illusionism. I could make up 10 items, and put them on a random encounter table, but the fact is that as a DM I’ve still decided that one of those 10 items occur.

    So the idea that Illusionism negates your chance for creating a dilemma is a bit of a red herring. You can still provide those dilemmas. Heck, your shifting ogres encounter could be an encounter with a dilemma.

    Illusionism is a valid and useful tool when used sparingly. I think that the end result, that is the experience that the players have, is more important than the specific mix of tools and techniques used. A lot of the gameplay is by casual gamers using APs. Storm King’s Thunder has a flowchart of the adventure, which clearly shows that regardless of which of the 5 options they take after chapter 4 is that they will end up at chapter 10.

    Does this remove player agency? I don’t think so. First, unless they read it, they won’t know that fact. But aside from that, they will learn different things, have different experiences, and have a different approach and understanding of what’s going on when they get to chapter 10. Their choice still has consequences.

    In the case of the ogres on the low road and the high road, you’ve already answered that question. It’s not so much about what they meet, but the destination of the road.

    The bottom line to me is that while discussions like this tend to focus on narrow, out-of-context examples. Through the lens of an entire campaign, and the experience at the table, Illusionism usually is first off, often undiscovered, and more importantly, a very small part of the game.

    You can have a bad DM using Illusionism, and a bad DM that doesn’t. Worse, articles and discussions (not so much this one, but some of the more strident ones you’ve linked to), run the risk of alienating people, particularly potential DMs that don’t think they can live up to the standards. Especially when those standards aren’t a universal truth. Not everybody has an issue with them.

    To me a mix of a sandbox, prewritten plots and schemes (of NPCs and organizations, not the PCs obviously), fixed locals and encounters, random encounters, and Illusionism encounters all have their time and place, and pros and cons.

  5. Andrew

    Interesting post. I see illusionism in the entire game, I mean the characters could give up the big quest at any moment and head off to that village over there and start turnip farming, but the DM does not have to plan for that because everyone at the table generally agrees to stick to the path they are on, or if they want to farm turnips they give the DM a little time to change their plans.

    I hate to leave anything good on the cutting room floor, so In the example presented I would stick the unused encounters in elsewhere. If you look at the flowcharts of adventure games, or computer RPGs you will often see branches that branch out and then reconverge. Because game makers also struggle with huge worlds and limited resources to flesh them out. I aim for that in my adventure design, come up with significant tough decisions (that are not cliche, the hard part) that change the world, but still plan routes back to the main railroad of a narrative.

  6. Numa Pompilius

    Sorry for necroposting again, but I have to disagree. Illusionism IS a cheat, or, for better word, a lie. You (abstract you, not you specifically) can say otherwise until one of your players just asks directly: “Was there really a choice? Would we find the Baron on the other road?” Now the only way to maintain an illusion is to lie. And I think, the game that requires you to lie if anyone asks the right question is cheating from the beginning.

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